Re: Of Postmodernism, Spins, and What The Hell (fwd)

Robert Parks (
Sat, 1 Jun 1996 11:18:42 -0400

I appreciate the contributions to the discussion of
modernism/postmodernism, and feel, as Mike says, that I have one foot in
both "camps". I think that may be because postmodernism is presented as a
critique and a methodology. It takes a negative character, like dialectical
negation. (In fact, it may be that deconstruction could be considered an
application of dialectic.) But we still aspire to shared knowledge. It is
unsatisfying to look at truth as whatever can be negotiated in a dialogue.
Habermas and others would qualify that by asking for an "ideal
communication situation"... one in which we are not distracted or
restricted by our prejudices, or our unique and individual interests.

Lois... I'd like to get your views on "language games". What sources would
you suggest for a classification/interpretation of language games. (I
assume you are taking Wittgenstein as your starting point....?)

If we follow Lois's suggestion that postmodernism be considered as a
language game, then we might ask what normative conditions might be placed
on the situations which allow dialogue/critique/deconstruction to produce
knowledge. (I won't try to impose the quest for "truth".) And we might ask
what sort of standards of knowledge itself might emerge from that dialogue.
I would suggest looking at Marx's early writings, and taking the
perspective of our "species being" - our participation as members of the
species, responsible for the conditions of production and reproduction of
the species, as well as for their impact on all life processes. I think
that is what Habermas was trying to find a procedure for... a situation
that would allow us to communicate from a wider perspective. (And I would
like to contest the idea that Marx's narrative is a "grand narrative" in
the sense of excluding others. It attempts to incorporate rather than
exclude... but it also tries to distinguish authentic from ideological
perspectives. Marx, it should be noted, did not predict an inevitable
victory for the working class, even in his most rhetorical work. That was
the doing of some of his followers, who had a political need for such
predictions. Marx, it should also be noted, did not specify what communism
would be like, except to specify conditions for the democratization of
economic life. Thus, it appears to me that Marx was in fact speaking from a
post modern perspective of the conditions of empowerment.)

Perhaps its only because I'm a political scientist, but it appears to me
that the question hangs on the notion of "polity" - how do we determine the
scope of inclusion in our dialogues about what to do, and in our
cooperative efforts to do it.

I'm wondering if an analogy from politics might help. The 1st Amendment to
our constitution protects the right of freedom of speech. This should be
taken as a procedural rule covering dissent. In this way, it is similar to
the postmodern impulse to preserve dialogue. But the court also says the
right isn't absolute - one may not shout "fire" in a crowded theatre, or
use "fighting words" to incite violence. What actual statements count as
analogues to those two models of excepted speech isn't ever clear - it
turns out to be just whatever the Supreme Court decides is
acceptable/unacceptable. But the courts too play a language game. They
aren't perfectly free to mean whatever they want to by the words. The
struggle is always to search for what "we" want to mean by our words. I
suggest that (in a saying attributed to Native Americans) thinking towards
truth involves thinking to the seventh generation - or, in Edmund Burke's
terms, thinking about linking the past, the present, and the future.
Instead of asking "What does 'freedom of speech' mean", the question is
always, "what IS THERE for us to mean by 'freedom of speech' (or another
word or expression). (This inversion is found in one of Stephen Toulmin's

Mike's focus appears to be on "what works best in the context in question
with the interlocutors in question". I think that aptly describes the
analogy of the supreme court. The are looking for what "works best" for the
court and the American people. But how many of us believe they define "what
works best" in terms of what is "just" rather than what promotes their own
agenda for policy? This is a rather tame example, because I would hope we
would also have to deal with "what works best" for a Bosnian Serb on the
invasion of Srebrenka (sp?), or "what works best" at a Nazi internment camp
staff meeting.

I guess I"m asking whether we can bring the idea of the "scope of the
participants" (to include those not physically present - thus, the "scope
of the polity") into the notion of a language game?

I'm speaking here only to give others a chance to catch your breath and
continue with your insightful and interesting contributions.